Official Languages: Kikongo, Portuguese
Established: 1390 AD/CE
Disestablished: 1975 AD/CE
Verbal traditions about the early history of the country were set in writing for the first time in the late 16th century, and the most comprehensive was recorded in the mid-17th century, including those written by the Italian Capuchin missionary Giovanni Cavazzi da Montecuccolo. More detailed research in modern oral traditions, initially conducted in the early 20th century by Redemptorist missionaries like Jean Cuvelier and Joseph de Munck do not appear to relate to the very early period.
According to Kongo tradition, the kingdom's origin lay in Mpemba Kasi, a large Bantu kingdom to the south of the Mbata Kingdom, which merged with that state to form the Kingdom of Kongo around 1375 AD. Mpemba Kasi was located just south of modern-day Matadi in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A dynasty of rulers from this small polity built up its rule along the Kwilu valley, and its members are buried in Nsi Kwilu, its capital. Traditions from the 17th century allude to this sacred burial ground. According to the missionary Girolamo da Montesarchio, an Italian Capuchin who visited the area from 1650 to 1652, the site was so holy that looking upon it was deadly. At some point around 1375, Nimi a Nzima, ruler of Mpemba Kasi, made an alliance with Nsaku Lau, the ruler of the neighboring Mbata Kingdom. Nimi a Nzima married Luqueni Luansanze, a member of the Mbata people and possibly Nsaku Lau's daughter. This alliance guaranteed that each of the two allies would help ensure the succession of their ally's lineage in the other's territory.
The first king of the Kingdom of Kongo, Dya Ntotila, was Nimi a Nzima and Luqueni Luansanze's son Lukeni Lua Nimi (circa 1380–1420). The name Nimi a Lukeni appeared in later oral traditions and some modern historians, notably Jean Cuvelier, popularized it. Luke Lua Nimi, or Nimi a Lukeni, became the founder of Kongo when he conquered the kingdom of the Mwene Kabunga (or Mwene Mpangala), which lay on a mountain to his south.] He transferred his rule to this mountain, the Mongo dia Kongo or "mountain of Kongo", and made Mbanza Kongo, the town there, his capital. Two centuries later the Mwene Kabunga's descendants still symbolically challenged the conquest in an annual celebration. The rulers that followed Lukeni all claimed some form of relation to his kanda, or lineage and were known as the Kilukeni. The Kilukeni Kanda or "house" as it was recorded in Portuguese documents, ruled Kongo unopposed until 1567.
After the death of Nimi a Lukeni, his brother, Mbokani Mavinga, took over the throne and ruled until approximately 1467. He had two wives and nine children. His rule saw an expansion of the Kingdom of Kongo to include the neighbouring state the Kingdom of Loango and other areas now encompassed by the current Republic of Congo.
The Mwene Kongos often gave the governorships to members of their family or its clients. As this centralization increased, the allied provinces gradually lost influence until their powers were only symbolic, manifested in Mbata, once a co-kingdom, but by 1620 simply known by the title "Grandfather of the King of Kongo" (Nkaka'ndi a Mwene Kongo).
The high concentration of population around Mbanza Kongo and its outskirts played a critical role in the centralization of Kongo. The capital was a densely settled area in an otherwise sparsely populated region where rural population densities probably did not exceed 5 persons per km2. Early Portuguese travelers described Mbanza Kongo as a large city, the size of the Portuguese town of Évora as it was in 1491. By the end of the sixteenth century, Kongo's population was probably close to half a million people in a core region of some 130,000 square kilometers. By the early seventeenth century the city and its hinterland had a population of around 100,000, or one out of every five inhabitants in the Kingdom (according to baptismal statistics compiled by Jesuit priests). This concentration allowed resources, soldiers and surplus foodstuffs to be readily available at the request of the king. This made the king overwhelmingly powerful and caused the kingdom to become highly centralized.
By the time of the first recorded contact with the Europeans, the Kingdom of Kongo was a highly developed state at the center of an extensive trading network. Apart from natural resources and ivory, the country manufactured and traded copperware, ferrous metal goods, raffia cloth, and pottery. The Kongo people spoke in the Kikongo language. The eastern regions, especially that part known as the Seven Kingdoms of Kongo dia Nlaza (or in Kikongo Mumbwadi or "the Seven"), were particularly famous for the production of cloth.
In 1483, the Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão sailed up the uncharted Congo River, finding Kongo villages and becoming the first European to encounter the Kongo kingdom. Cão left men in Kongo and took Kongo nobles to Portugal. He returned with the Kongo nobles in 1485. At that point the ruling king, Nzinga a Nkuwu, converted to Christianity. Cão returned to the kingdom with Roman Catholic priests and soldiers in 1491, baptizing Nzinga a Nkuwu as well as his principal nobles, starting with the ruler of Soyo, the coastal province. At the same time a literate Kongo citizen returning from Portugal opened the first school. Nzinga a Nkuwu took the Christian name of João I in honor of Portugal's king at the time, João II.
João I ruled until his death around 1506 and was succeeded by his son Afonso Mvemba a Nzinga. He faced a serious challenge from a half brother, Mpanzu a Kitima. The king overcame his brother in a battle waged at Mbanza Kongo. According to Afonso's own account, sent to Portugal in 1506, he was able to win the battle thanks to the intervention of a heavenly vision of Saint James and the Virgin Mary. Inspired by these events, he subsequently designed a coat of arms for Kongo that was used by all following kings on official documents, royal paraphernalia and the like until 1860. While King João I later reverted to his traditional beliefs, Afonso I established Christianity as the state religion of his kingdom. Banner of King Afonso I King Afonso I worked to create a viable version of the Roman Catholic Church in Kongo, providing for its income from royal assets and taxation that provided salaries for its workers. With advisers from Portugal such as Rui d'Aguiar, the Portuguese royal chaplain sent to assist Kongo's religious development, Afonso created a syncretic version of Christianity that would remain a part of its culture for the rest of the kingdom's independent existence. King Afonso himself studied hard at this task. Rui d'Aguir once said Afonso I knew more of the church's tenets than he did.
In 1509, instead of the usual election among the nobles, a hereditary European-style succession led to the African king Afonso I succeeding his father, now named João I.
The Kongo church was always short of ordained clergy, and made up for it by the employment of a strong laity. Kongolese school teachers or mestres were the anchor of this system. Recruited from the nobility and trained in the kingdom's schools, they provided religious instruction and services to others building upon Kongo's growing Christian population. At the same time, they permitted the growth of syncretic forms of Christianity which incorporated older religious ideas with Christian ones. Examples of this are the introduction of KiKongo words to translate Christian concepts. The KiKongo words ukisi (an abstract word meaning charm, but used to mean "holy") and nkanda (meaning book) were merged so that the Christian Bible became known as the nkanda ukisi. The church became known as the nzo a ukisi. While some European clergy often denounced these mixed traditions, they were never able to root them out. An image depicting Portuguese encounter with Kongo royal family Part of the establishment of this church was the creation of a strong priesthood and to this end Afonso's son Henrique was sent to Europe to be educated. Henrique became an ordained priest and in 1518 was named as bishop of Utica (a North African diocese recently reclaimed from the Muslims). He returned to Kongo in the early 1520s to run Kongo's new church. He died in 1531.
Today, Roman Catholicism is the largest religion in Angola, which contains the Portuguese-speaking section of the former Kongo kingdom.
In the following decades, the Kingdom of Kongo became a major source of slaves for Portuguese traders and other European powers. The Cantino Atlas of 1502 mentions Kongo as a source of slaves for the island of São Tomé. Slavery had existed in Kongo long before the arrival of the Portuguese, and Afonso's early letters show the evidence of slave markets. They also show the purchase and sale of slaves within the country and his accounts on capturing slaves in war which were given and sold to Portuguese merchants. It is likely that most of the slaves exported to the Portuguese were war captives from Kongo's campaigns of expansion. In addition, the slaving wars helped Afonso consolidate his power in southern and eastern border regions.
Despite its long establishment within his kingdom, Afonso believed that the slave trade should be subject to Kongo law. When he suspected the Portuguese of receiving illegally enslaved persons to sell, he wrote to King João III of Portugal in 1526 imploring him to put a stop to the practice. Ultimately, Afonso decided to establish a special committee to determine the legality of the enslavement of those who were being sold.
A common characteristic of political life in the kingdom of Kongo was a fierce competition over succession to the throne. Afonso's own contest for the throne was intense, though little is known about it. However, a great deal is known about how such struggles took place from the contest that followed Afonso's death in late 1542 or early 1543. This is in large part due to detailed inquest conducted by royal officials in 1550, which survives in the Portuguese archives. In this inquest one can see that factions formed behind prominent men, such as Afonso I's son, Pedro Nkanga a Mvemba and Diogo Nkumbi a Mpudi, his grandson who ultimately overthrew Pedro in 1545. Although the factions placed themselves in the idiom of kinship (using the Portuguese term geração or lineage, probably kanda in Kikongo) they were not formed strictly along heredity lines since close kin were often in separate factions. The players included nobles holding appointive titles to provincial governorships, members of the royal council and also officials in the now well developed Church hierarchy.
King Diogo I skillfully replaced or outmaneuvered his entrenched competitors after he was crowned in 1545. He faced a major conspiracy led by Pedro I, who had taken refuge in a church, and whom Diogo in respect of the Church's rule of asylum allowed to remain in the church. However, Diogo did conduct an inquiry into the plot, the text of which was sent to Portugal in 1552 and gives us an excellent idea of the way in which plotters hoped to overthrow the king by enticing his supporters to abandon him.
Problems also arose between Diogo and the Portuguese settlers at Sao Tome known as Tomistas. According to a treaty between Kongo and Portugal, the latter were only to trade within the former's realm for slaves. That meant the Portuguese were restricted to the slaves offered by King Diogo or those he authorized to sell slaves. Every year the Tomistas would come with 12 to 15 ships to carry back between 400 and 700 slaves (5,000–10,000 slaves a year). This was not enough to take advantage of Kongo's ever-growing supply of slaves thanks to wars on its eastern frontier. The captains would try to overload their cargos, resulting in revolts. However, the factor that actually broke the deal was the Tomista habit of sailing upriver to the Malebo Pool to purchase slaves from BaTeke traders who were increasingly taken with European goods over the nzimbu shells the manikongo offered them. Enraged by this breach of contract, King Diogo broke off relations in 1555 and expelled 70 or so Portuguese living in his realm (many of whom had lived there for a long time and had African wives and mixed-race children).
The king's attempt at pacifying the restless kingdom of Ndongo in 1556 backfired resulting in the latter's independence. Despite this setback, he enjoyed a long reign that ended with his death in 1561.
King Diogo's successor, whose name is lost to history, was killed by the Portuguese, and replaced with a bastard son, who was more pliant to Tomista interests, Afonso II. The common people of Kongo were enraged at his enthronement, and responded with riots throughout the kingdom. Many Portuguese were killed, and the royal port of Mpinda was closed to the Portuguese, effectively ending the slave trade between Kongo and Portugal. Less than a year into this chaos, King Afonso II was murdered while attending mass, by his brother, the next manikongo, Bernardo I. King Bernardo allowed the boycott of Portuguese trade to continue, while quietly reestablishing relations with Lisbon. King Bernardo I was killed warring against the Yaka, in 1567. The next manikongo, Henrique I was drawn into a war in the eastern part of the country, where he was killed, leaving the government in the hands of his stepson Álvaro Nimi a Lukeni lua Mvemba. He was crowned as Álvaro I, "by common consent," according to some witnesses.
Álvaro I came to the throne during another contest over the throne in 1568. Being from the Kwilu river valley and not a blood relative of any of the previous kings, his reign marked the beginning of the House of Kwilu. There were certainly factions that opposed him, though it is not known specifically who they were. Álvaro immediately had to fight invaders from the east (who some authorities believe were actually rebels within the country, either peasants or discontented nobles from rival factions) called the Jagas. To do this, he decided to enlist the aid of the Portuguese based at São Tomé, who sent an expedition under Francisco de Gouveia Sottomaior to assist. As a part of the same process, Álvaro agreed to allow the Portuguese to establish a colony in his province of Luanda south of his kingdom. In addition to allowing the Portuguese to establish themselves in Luanda, Kongo provided the Portuguese with support in their war against the Kingdom of Ndongo in 1579. The kingdom of Ndongo was located inland east of Luanda and although claimed in Kongo's royal titles as early as 1535, was probably never under a firm Kongo administration.
Álvaro also worked hard to westernize Kongo, gradually introducing European style titles for his nobles, so that the Mwene Nsundi became the Duke of Nsundi; the Mwene Mbamba became the Duke of Mbamba. The Mwene Mpemba became Marquis of Mpemba, and the Mwene Soyo became Count of Soyo. He and his son Álvaro II Nimi a Nkanga (crowned in 1587) bestowed orders of chivalry called the Order of Christ. The capital was also renamed São Salvador or "Holy Savior" in Portuguese during this period. In 1596, Álvaro's emissaries to Rome persuaded the Pope to recognize São Salvador as the cathedral of a new diocese which would include Kongo and the Portuguese territory in Angola. However, the king of Portugal won the right to nominate the bishops to this see, which became a source of tension between the two countries.
Portuguese bishops in the kingdom were often favourable to European interests in a time when relations between Kongo and Angola were tense. They refused to appoint priests, forcing Kongo to rely more and more heavily on the laity. Documents of the time show that lay teachers (called mestres in Portuguese-language documents) were paid salaries and appointed by the crown, and at times Kongo kings withheld income and services to the bishops and their supporters (a tactic called "country excommunication"). Controlling revenue was vital for Kongo's kings since even Jesuit missionaries were paid salaries from the royal exchequer.
At the same time as this ecclesiastical problem developed, the governors of Angola began to extend their campaigns into areas that Kongo regarded as firmly under its sovereignty. This included the region around Nambu a Ngongo, which Governor João Furtado attacked in the mid-1590s. Other campaigns in the vicinity led to denunciations by the rulers of Kongo against these violations of their sovereignty
Álvaro I and his successor, Álvaro II, also faced problems with factional rivals from families that had been displaced from succession. In order to raise support against some enemies, they had to make concessions to others. One of the most important of these concessions was allowing Manuel, the Count of Soyo, to hold office for many years beginning some time before 1591. During this same period, Álvaro II made a similar concession to António da Silva, the Duke of Mbamba. António da Silva was strong enough to decide the succession of the kingdom, selecting Bernardo II in 1614, but putting him aside in favor of Álvaro III in 1615. It was only with difficulty that Álvaro III was able to put his own choice in as Duke of Mbamba when António da Silva died in 1620 instead of having the province fall into the hands of the duke's son. At the same time, however, Álvaro III created another powerful and semi-independent nobleman in Manuel Jordão, who held Nsundi for him.
Tensions between Portugal and Kongo increased further as the governors of Portuguese Angola became more aggressive. Luis Mendes de Vasconcelos, who arrived as governor in 1617, used mercenary African groups called Imbangala to make a devastating war on Ndongo, and then to raid and pillage some southern Kongo provinces. He was particularly interested in the province of Kasanze, a marshy region that lay just north of Luanda. Many slaves being deported through Luanda fled into this region and were often granted sanctuary, and for this reason, Mendes de Vasconcelos decided that a determined action was needed to stop it. The next governor of Angola, João Correia de Sousa [pt], used the Imbangala to launch a full-scale invasion of southern Kongo in 1622, following the death of Álvaro III. Correia de Sousa claimed he had the right to choose the king of Kongo. He was also upset that the Kongolese electors chose Pedro II, a former Duke of Mbamba. Pedro II was originally from the duchy of Nsundi, hence the name of the royal house he created, the House of Nsundi. Correia de Sousa also contended that Pedro II had sheltered runaway slaves from Angola during the latter's governorship of Mbamba.
The First Kongo-Portuguese War began in 1622, initially because of a Portuguese campaign against the Kasanze Kingdom, which was conducted ruthlessly. From there, the army moved to Nambu a Ngongo, whose ruler, Pedro Afonso, was held to be sheltering runaway slaves as well. Although Pedro Afonso, facing an overwhelming army of over 20,000, agreed to return some runaways, the army attacked his country and killed him.
Following its success in Nambu a Ngongo, the Portuguese army advanced into Mbamba in November. The Portuguese forces scored a victory at the Battle of Mbumbi. There they faced a quickly gathered local force led by the new Duke of Mbamba, and reinforced by forces from Mpemba led by its marquis. Both the Duke of Mbamba and the Marquis of Mpemba were killed in the battle. According to Esikongo accounts, they were eaten by the Imbangala allies of the Portuguese. However, Pedro II, the newly crowned king of Kongo, brought the main army, including troops from Soyo, down into Mbamba and decisively defeated the Portuguese, driving them from the country at a battle waged somewhere near Mbanda Kasi in January 1623. Portuguese residents of Kongo, frightened by the consequences for their business of the invasion, wrote a hostile letter to Correia de Sousa, denouncing his invasion.
Following the defeat of the Portuguese at Mbandi Kasi, Pedro II declared Angola an official enemy. The king then wrote letters denouncing Correia de Sousa to the King of Spain and the Pope. Meanwhile, anti-Portuguese riots broke out all over the kingdom and threatened its long-established merchant community. Portuguese throughout the country were humiliatingly disarmed and even forced to give up their clothes. Pedro, anxious not to alienate the Portuguese merchant community, and aware that they had generally remained loyal during the war, did as much as he could to preserve their lives and property, leading some of his detractors to call him "king of Portuguese".
As a result of Kongo's victory, the Portuguese merchant community of Luanda revolted against the governor, hoping to preserve their ties with the king. Backed by the Jesuits, who had also just recommenced their mission there, they forced João Correia de Sousa to resign and flee the country. The interim government that followed the departure was led by the bishop of Angola. They were very conciliatory to Kongo and agreed to return over a thousand of the slaves captured by Correia de Sousa, especially the lesser nobles captured at the Battle of Mbumbi.
Regardless of the overtures of the new government in Angola, Pedro II had not forgotten the invasion and planned to remove the Portuguese from the realm altogether. The king sent a letter to the Dutch Estates General proposing a joint military attack on Angola with a Kongo army and a Dutch fleet. He would pay the Dutch with gold, silver and ivory for their efforts. As planned, a Dutch fleet under the command of the celebrated admiral Piet Heyn arrived in Luanda to carry out an attack in 1624. The plan failed to come to fruition as by then Pedro had died and his son Garcia Mvemba a Nkanga was elected king. King Garcia I was more forgiving of the Portuguese and had been successfully persuaded by their various gestures of conciliation. He was unwilling to press the attack on Angola at that time, contending that as a Catholic, he could not ally with non-Catholics to attack the city.
The end of the first quarter of the 17th century saw a new flare-up in Kongo's political struggle. At the heart of the conflict were two noble houses fighting over the kingship. On one side of the conflict was the House of Kwilu, which counted most of the kings named Álvaro. They were ousted by the opposing House of Nsundi, when Pedro II was placed on the throne by powerful local forces in São Salvador, probably as a compromise when Álvaro III died without an heir old enough to rule.
As the reigning power, the House of Nsundi worked earnestly to place partisans in king-making positions throughout the empire. Either Pedro II or Garcia I managed to secure Soyo in the hands of Count Paulo, who held it and supported the House of Nsundi from about 1625 until 1641. Meanwhile, Manuel Jordão, a partisan of the House of Kwilu, managed to force Garcia I to flee and placed Ambrósio I of the House of Kwilu on the throne.
King Ambrósio either could not or did not remove Paulo from Soyo, though he did eventually remove Jordão. After a rule marked by rumors of war mobilizations and other disruptions, a great riot at the capital resulted in the death of the king by a mob. Ambrosio was replaced with Alvaro IV by the Duke of Mbamba, Daniel da Silva. King Alvaro IV was only eleven at the time and easily manipulated. In 1632, Daniel da Silva marched on the capital in order to "rescue his nephew from his enemies". At the time, he was under the protection of the Count of Soyo, Paulo, Alvaro Nimi a Lukeni a Nzenze a Ntumba and his brother Garcia II Nkanga a Lukeni. After a dramatic battle in Soyo, the young king was successfully restored only to be later poisoned by Alvaro V, a Kimpanzu.
After waging a second war against his cousins, Nimi a Lukeni and Nkanga a Lukeni, Alvaro V was killed, and replaced by Alvaro VI in 1636, initiating the House of Kinlaza's rule over Kongo. Following his death in 1641, Alvaro VI's brother took over, and was crowned Garcia II. The former House of Nsundi was consolidated with their House of Kwilu rivals as the Kimpanzu lineage of the dead Alvaro V.
Garcia II took the throne on the eve of several crises. One of his rivals, Daniel da Silva (who probably received the patronage of the Daniel da Silva who was killed by Garcia II while defending Alvaro IV), managed to secure the County of Soyo and used it as a base against Garcia II for the whole of his reign. As a result, Garcia II was prevented from completely consolidating his authority. Another problem facing King Garcia II was a rebellion in the Dembos region, which also threatened his authority. Lastly, there was the agreement made by Pedro II in 1622, promising Kongo's support to the Dutch in an offensive to oust Portugal from Luanda.
Dutch invasion of Luanda, and the Second Portuguese War[edit | edit source]
In 1641, the Dutch invaded Angola and captured Luanda, after an almost bloodless struggle. They immediately sought to renew their alliance with Kongo, which had had a false start in 1624, when Garcia I refused to assist a Dutch attack on Luanda. While relations between Sao Salvador and Luanda were not warm, the two polities had enjoyed an easy peace, due to the former's internal distractions, and the latter's war against the Kingdom of Matamba. The same year of the Portuguese ouster from Luanda, Kongo entered into a formal agreement with the new government, and agreed to provide military assistance as needed. Garcia II ejected nearly all Portuguese and Luso-African merchants from his kingdom. The colony of Angola was declared an enemy once again, and the Duke of Mbamba was sent with an army to assist the Dutch. The Dutch also provided Kongo with military assistance, in exchange for payment in slaves.
In 1642, the Dutch sent troops to help Garcia II put down an uprising by peoples of the southern district in the Dembos region. The government quickly put down the Nsala rebellion, reaffirming the Kongo-Dutch alliance. King Garcia II paid the Dutch for their services in slaves taken from ranks of Dembos rebels. These slaves were sent to Pernambuco, Brazil where the Dutch had taken over a portion of the Portuguese sugar-producing region. A Dutch-Kongo force attacked Portuguese bases on the Bengo River in 1643 in retaliation for Portuguese harassment. The Dutch captured Portuguese positions and forced their rivals to withdraw to Dutch forts on the Kwanza River at Muxima and Masangano. Following this victory, the Dutch once again appeared to lose interest in conquering the colony of Angola.
As in their conquest of Pernambuco, the Dutch West India Company was content to allow the Portuguese to remain inland. The Dutch sought to spare themselves the expense of war, and instead relied on control of shipping to profit from the colony. Thus, to Garcia's chagrin, the Portuguese and Dutch signed a peace treaty in 1643, ending the brief albeit successful war. With the Portuguese out of the way and an end to Dutch pursuit of troops, Garcia II could finally turn his attention to the growing threat posed by the Count of Soyo.
While Garcia was disappointed that his alliance with the Dutch could not drive out the Portuguese, it did free him to turn his attention to the growing threat posed by the Count of Soyo. The Counts of Soyo were initially strong partisans of the House of Nsundi and its successor, the House of Kinlaza. Count Paulo had assisted in the rise of the Kinlaza to power. However, Paulo died at about the same time as Garcia became king in 1641. A rival count, Daniel da Silva from the House of Kwilu, took control of the county as a partisan of the newly formed Kimpanzu faction. He would claim that Soyo had the right to choose its own ruler, though Garcia never accepted this claim, and spent much of the first part of his reign fighting against it. Garcia did not support da Silva's move, as Soyo's ruler was one of the most important offices in Kongo.
In 1645, Garcia II sent a force against Daniel da Silva under the command of his son, Afonso. The campaign was a failure, due to Kongo's inability to take Soyo's fortified position at Mfinda Ngula. Worse still, Afonso was captured in the battle, forcing Garcia to engage in humiliating negotiations with da Silva to win back his son's freedom. Italian Capuchin missionaries who had just arrived in Soyo, in the aftermath of the battle, assisted in the negotiations. In 1646, Garcia sent a second military force against Soyo, but his forces were again defeated. Because Garcia was so intent on subduing Soyo, he was unable to make a full military effort to assist the Dutch in their war against Portugal.
The Dutch were convinced that they could avoid committing their forces to any further wars. Queen Njinga had been active against the Portuguese, and the Dutch felt secure. When Portuguese reinforcements managed to defeat her at Kavanga in 1646, the Dutch felt obliged to be more aggressive. The Dutch convinced Kongo to join them and Queen Njinga in another venture against the Portuguese. In 1647, Kongo troops participated in the Battle of Kombi, where they soundly defeated the Portuguese field army, after forcing them to fight defensively.
A year later, Portuguese reinforcements from Brazil forced the Dutch to surrender Luanda and withdraw from Angola in 1648. The new Portuguese governor, Salvador de Sá, sought terms with Kongo, demanding the Island of Luanda, the source of Kongo's money supply of nzimbu shells. Although neither Kongo nor Angola ever ratified the treaty, sent to the king in 1649, the Portuguese gained de facto control of the island. The war resulted in the Dutch losing their claims in Central Africa, Nzinga being forced back into Matamba, the Portuguese restored to their coastal position. Kongo lost or gained nothing, other than the indemnity Garcia paid, which ended hostilities between the two rival powers. King Garcia II, after allowing the Portuguese to gain control over Luanda Island, switched the kingdom's currency to raffia cloth, seemingly negating the Portuguese gains.
Portugal began pressing claims over southern vassals of Kongo, especially the country of Mbwila, following Portuguese restoration at Luanda. Mbwila, a nominal vassal of Kongo, had also signed a treaty of vassalage with Portugal in 1619. It divided its loyalty between the Colony of Angola and Kongo in the intervening period. Though the Portuguese often attacked Mbwila, they never brought it under their authority.
Kongo began working towards a Spanish alliance, especially following António I's succession as king in 1661. Although it is not clear what diplomatic activities he engaged in with Spain itself, the Portuguese clearly believed that he hoped to repeat the Dutch invasion, this time with the assistance of Spain. António sent emissaries to the Dembos region and to Matamba and Mbwila, attempting to form a new anti-Portuguese alliance. The Portuguese had been troubled, moreover, by Kongo support of runaway slaves, who flocked to southern Kongo throughout the 1650s. At the same time, the Portuguese were advancing their own agenda for Mbwila, which they claimed as a vassal. In 1665, both sides invaded Mbwila, and their rival armies met each other at Ulanga, in the valley below Mbanza Mbwila, capital of the district.
At the Battle of Mbwila in 1665, the Portuguese forces from Angola had their first victory against the kingdom of Kongo since 1622. They defeated the forces under António I killing him and many of his courtiers as well as the Luso-African Capuchin priest Manuel Roboredo (also known by his cloister name of Francisco de São Salvador), who had attempted to prevent this final war.
In the aftermath of the battle, there was no clear succession. The country was divided between rival claimants to the throne. The two factions, Kimpanzu and Kinlaza, hardened, and partitioned the country between them. Pretenders would ascend to the throne, and then be ousted. The period was marked by an increase in BaKongo slaves being sold across the Atlantic, the weakening of the Kongo monarchy and the strengthening of Soyo.
During this chaos, Kongo was being increasingly manipulated by Soyo. In an act of desperation, the central authority in Kongo called on Luanda to attack Soyo in return for various concessions. The Portuguese invaded the county of Soyo in 1670. They met with no more success than Garcia II, being roundly defeated by Soyo's forces at the Battle of Kitombo on 18 October 1670. The kingdom of Kongo was to remain completely independent, though still embroiled in civil war, thanks to the very force (Portuguese colonials) it had fought so long to destroy. This Portuguese defeat was resounding enough to end all Portuguese ambitions in Kongo's sphere of influence, until the end of the nineteenth century.
The battles between the Kimpanzu and Kinlaza continued plunging the kingdom into a chaos not known in centuries. The fighting between the two lineages led to the sack of São Salvador in 1678. Ironically, the capital built by the pact of Mpemba and Mbata was burned to the ground, not by the Portuguese or rival African nations but by its very heirs. The city and hinterland around Mbanza Kongo became depopulated. The population dispersed into the mountain top fortresses of the rival kings. These were the Mountain of Kibangu east of the capital and the fortress of the Águas Rosadas, a line founded in the 1680s from descendants of Kinlaza and Kimpanzu, the region of Mbula, or Lemba where a line founded by the Kinlaza pretender, Pedro III ruled; and Lovota, a district in southern Soyo that sheltered a Kimpanzu lineage whose head was D Suzanna de Nóbrega. Finally, D Ana Afonso de Leão founded her own center on the Mbidizi River at Nkondo and guided her junior kinsmen to reclaim the country, even as she sought to reconcile the hostile factions.
In the interim, however, tens of thousands fleeing the conflict or caught up in the battles were deported as slaves to English, French, Dutch and Portuguese merchants every year. One human stream led north to Loango, whose merchants, known as Vili (Mubires in the period) carried them primarily to merchants from England and the Netherlands, and others were taken south to Luanda, where they were sold to Portuguese merchants bound for Brazil. By the end of the seventeenth century, several long wars and interventions by the now independent Counts of Soyo (who restyled themselves as Grand Princes) had brought an end to Kongo's golden age.
For nearly forty years, the kingdom of Kongo wallowed in civil war. With São Salvador in ruins, the rival houses had retreated to bases in Mbula (also known as Lemba) and Kibangu. In the midst of this crisis, a young woman named Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita appeared claiming that she was possessed by the spirit of Saint Anthony. She tried to win recognition for a reunification of the country. At first, in 1704, she tried with King Pedro IV Nusamu a Mvemba who ruled from Kibangu, east of the old capital. When he rebuffed her, she went to his rival João III Nzuzi a Ntamba, at his fortified mountain of Lemba (also known as Mbula), just south of the Congo River. After being driven away from there, she decided to call her followers to reoccupy the capital with her. Thousands came, and the city was repopulated. As she became more of a political actor, she became involved in the rivalry between the kings, eventually choosing to elect the Kibangu army commander Pedro Constantinho da Silva as a new king, over Pedro IV. However, she was captured shortly after this by Pedro IV's supporters, tried, condemned for witchcraft and heresy and burned in July 1706. The movement continued in control of São Salvador, until Pedro IV's army stormed it in 1709.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Kongo artists began making crucifixes and other religious objects that depicted Jesus as an African. Such objects produced by many workshops over a long period (given their variety) reflect that emerging belief that Kongo was a central part of the Christian world, and fundamental to its history. A story of the eighteenth century was that the partially ruined cathedral of São Salvador, originally constructed for the Jesuits in 1549 and eventually elevated to cathedral status, was actually built overnight by angels. It was called affectionately, Nkulumbimbi. Pope John Paul II would eventually say mass at this cathedral in 1992.
Manuel II of Kongo succeeded Pedro IV in 1718. Manuel II ruled over a restored and restive kingdom until his death in 1743. However, Soyo's provincial status in the kingdom, nominal for years, limited Manuel's power. Nsundi on the north had also more or less become independent, although still claiming to be part of the larger kingdom and more or less permanently ruled by a Kimpanzu family. Even within the remaining portions of the kingdom, there were still powerful and violent rivalries. At least one major war took place in the 1730s in the province of Mbamba. Pedro IV's successor, Garcia IV Nkanga a Mvandu, ruled from 1743 to 1752. Pedro IV's restoration required his successor's membership in a branch of the Kinlaza faction resident in Matadi that had sworn loyalty to Pedro IV in 1716. Other Kinlaza branches had developed in the north, at Lemba and Matari, and in the south along the Mbidizi River in lands that had been ruled by D. Ana Afonso de Leão. De Leão's lands came to be called the "Lands of the Queen".
The system of alternating succession broke down in 1764, when Álvaro XI, a Kinlaza, drove out the Kimpanzu king Pedro V and took over the throne. Pedro and his successor in Luvata maintained a separate court at Sembo, and never acknowledged the usurpation. A regent of Pedro's successor claimed the throne in the early 1780s and pressed his claims against a José I, a Kinlaza from the Mbidizi Valley branch of the royal family. José won the showdown, fought at São Salvador in 1781, a massive battle involving 30,000 soldiers on José's side alone. To show his contempt for his defeated rival, José refused to allow the soldiers of the other faction to receive Christian burial. José's power was limited, as he had no sway over the lands controlled by the Kinlaza faction of Lemba and Matari, even though they were technically of the same family, and he did not follow up his victory to extend his authority over the Kimpanzu lands around Luvota. At the same time, the lands around Mount Kibangu, Pedro IV's original base, was controlled—as it had been for the whole eighteenth century—by members of the Água Rosada family, who claimed descent from both the Kimpanzu and Kinlaza.
José ruled until 1785, when he handed power over to his brother Afonso V (1785–87). Afonso's brief reign ended in his sudden death, rumored to be by poisoning. A confused struggle broke out following Afonso's death. By 1794, the throne ended up in the hands of Henrique I, a man of uncertain factional origin, who arranged for three parties to divide the succession. Garcia V abrogated the arrangement, proclaiming himself king in 1805. He ruled until 1830. André II, who followed Garcia V, appeared to have restored the older rotational claims, as he was from the northern branch of the Kinlaza, whose capital had moved from Matadi to Manga. Andre ruled until 1842 when Henrique II, from the southern (Mbidizi Valley) branch of the same family, overthrew him. Andre, however, did not accept his fate and withdrew with his followers to Mbanza Mputo, a village just beyond the edge of São Salvador, where he and his descendants kept up their claims. King Henrique II, who came to power after overthrowing André II, ruled Kongo from 1842 until his death in 1857.
In 1839 the Portuguese government, acting on British pressure, abolished the slave trade south of the equator which had so damaged Central Africa. Human trafficking continued until well into the 1920s, first as an illegal slave trade, then as contract labor. A commodity trade, at first focused on ivory and wax, but gradually growing to include peanuts and rubber, replaced the slave trade. This trade revolutionized the economies and eventually the politics of the whole of Central Africa. In place of the slave trade, largely under the control of state authorities, thousands, and eventually hundreds of thousands, of commoners began carrying goods from inland to coastal ports. These people managed to share in the wealth of the new trade, and as a result, commercially connected people constructed new villages and challenged the authorities.
During this period social structure changed as well. New social organizations, makanda, emerged. These makanda, nominally clans descended from common ancestors, were as much trading associations as family units. These clans founded strings of villages connected by fictional kinship along the trade routes, from Boma or the coast of Soyo to São Salvador and then on into the interior. A new oral tradition about the founder of the kingdom, often held to be Afonso I, described the kingdom as originating when the king caused the clans to disperse in all directions. The histories of these clans, typically describing the travels of their founder and his followers from an origin point to their final villages, replaced in many areas the history of the kingdom itself.
Despite violent rivalries and the fracturing of the kingdom, it continued to exist independently well into the 19th century. The rise of the clans became noticeable in the 1850s at the end of the reign of Henrique II. In 1855 or 1856, two potential kings emerged to contest the succession following his death. Álvaro Ndongo, a Kimpanzu, claimed the throne on behalf of the Kinlaza faction of Matari, ignoring the existence of Andre's group at Mbanza Puto, calling himself Álvaro XIII; while Pedro Lelo claimed the throne on behalf of the Mbidizi Valley faction of the Kinlaza, from a base at Bembe. Pedro ultimately won a long military struggle, thanks to soliciting Portuguese aid, and with their help his soldiers defeated Álvaro in 1859. Like André II, Álvaro XIII did not accept defeat and established his own base at Nkunga, not far from São Salvador. The Portuguese support which had put Pedro V on the throne had a price, for when he was crowned Pedro V (he was actually the second king named Pedro V; the first one ruled in the late 1770s) he had also sworn a treaty of vassalage to Portugal. Portugal thus gained nominal authority over Kongo, when Pedro gained control of it in 1859, and even constructed a fort in São Salvador to house a garrison.
In 1866, citing excessive costs, the Portuguese government withdrew its garrison. Pedro was able to continue his rule, however, although he faced increasing rivalry from clan-based trading magnates who drained his authority from much of the country. The most dangerous of these was Garcia Mbwaka Matu of the town of Makuta. This town had been founded by a man named Kuvo, who probably obtained his wealth through trade, since he and Garcia made a great deal of controlling markets. Though this was a great challenge in the 1870s, after Garcia's death in 1880, Makuta became less problematic.
At the Conference of Berlin in 1884–1885, European powers divided most of Central Africa between them. Portugal claimed the lion's share of what remained of independent Kongo; however, Portugal was not then in a position to make "effective occupation". King Pedro V continued to rule until his death in 1891, and was able to use the Portuguese to strengthen his control. In 1888 he voluntarily reaffirmed Kongo's position as a Portuguese vassal state. After a revolt against the Portuguese in 1914, Portugal declared the abolition of the kingdom of Kongo, of which the ruler at that time was Manuel III of Kongo, ending native rule and replacing it with direct colonial rule. However, according to the Almanach de Bruxelles a series of titular kings kept on using the title until at least until 1964, when a dispute over the succession began.
The kingdom's army consisted of a mass levy of archers, drawn from the general male population, and a smaller corps of heavy infantry, who fought with swords and carried shields for protection. Portuguese documents typically referred to heavy infantry, considered nobles, as fidalgos in documents. The bearing of a shield was also important, as Portuguese documents usually call the heavy infantry adargueiros (shield bearers). There is weak evidence to suggest revenue assignments paid and supported them. A large number, perhaps as many as 20,000, stayed in the capital. Smaller contingents lived in the major provinces under the command of provincial rulers.
After 1600, civil war became far more common than inter-state warfare. The government instituted a draft for the entire population during wartime, but only a limited number actually served. Many who did not carry arms instead carried baggage and supplies. Thousands of women supported armies on the move. Administrators expected soldiers to have two weeks' worth of food upon reporting for campaign duty. Logistical difficulties probably limited both the size of armies and their capacity to operate for extended periods. Some Portuguese sources suggested that the king of Kongo fielded armies as large as 70,000 soldiers for a 1665 Battle of Mbwila, but it is unlikely that armies larger than 20–30,000 troops could be raised for military campaigns.
Troops were mobilized and reviewed on Saint James' Day, 25 July, when taxes were also collected. Subjects celebrated this day in honor of Saint James and Afonso I, whose miraculous victory over his brother in 1509 was the principal significance of the holiday in the Kongo.
When the Portuguese arrived in Kongo they were immediately added as a mercenary force, probably under their own commander, and used special-purpose weapons, like crossbows and muskets, to add force to the normal Kongo order of battle. Their initial impact was muted; Afonso complained in a letter of 1514 that they had not been very effective in a war he waged against Munza, a Mbundu rebel, the year before. By the 1580s, however, a musketeer corps, which was locally raised from resident Portuguese and their Kongo-mestiço (mixed race) offspring, was a regular part of the main Kongo army in the capital. Provincial armies had some musketeers; for example they served against the Portuguese invading army in 1622. Three hundred and sixty musketeers served in the Kongo army against the Portuguese at the Battle of Mbwila.
The vata village, referred to as libata in Kongo documents and by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, served as Kongo's basic social unit after the family. Nkuluntu, or mocolunto to the Portuguese, chiefs headed the villages. The one to two hundred citizens per village migrated about every ten years to accommodate soil exhaustion. Communal land-ownership and collective farms produced harvests divided by families according to the number of people per household. The nkuluntu received special premium from the harvest before the division.
Villages were grouped in wene, small states, led by awene (plural of mwene) or mani to the Portuguese. Awene lived in mbanza, larger villages or small towns of somewhere between 1,000 and 5,000 citizens. Higher nobility typically chose these leaders. The king also appointed lower-level officials to serve, typically for three-year terms, by assisting him in patronage.
Various provinces made up Kongo's higher administrative divisions, with some of the larger and more complex states, such as Mbamba, divided into varying numbers of sub-provinces, which the administration further subdivided. The king appointed the Mwene Mbamba, the Duke of Mbamba after the 1590s. The king technically had the power to dismiss the Mwene Mbamba, but the complex political situation limited the king's exercise of his power. When the administration gave out European-style titles, large districts like Mbamba and Nsundi typically became Duchies. The administration made smaller ones, such as Mpemba, Mpangu or a host of territories north of the capital), Marquisates. Soyo, a complex province on the coast, became a "County," as did Nkusu, a smaller and less complex state east of the capital.
Hereditary families controlled a few provinces, most notably the Duchy of Mbata and County of Nkusu, through their positions as officers appointed by the king. In the case of Mbata, the kingdom's origin as an alliance produced this power, exercised by the Nsaku Lau. In the seventeenth century, political maneuvering also caused some provinces, notably Soyo, but occasionally Mbamba, to be held for very long terms by the same person. Provincial governments still paid income to the crown and their rulers reported to the capital to give account.
The kingdom of Kongo was made up of a large number of provinces. Various sources list from six to fifteen as the principal ones. Duarte Lopes' description, based on his experience there in the late sixteenth century, identified six provinces as the most important. These were Nsundi in the northeast, Mpangu in the center, Mbata in the southeast, Soyo in the southwest and two southern provinces of Mbamba and Mpemba.
The king of Kongo also held several kingdoms in at least nominal vassalage. These included the kingdoms of Kakongo, Ngoyo and Vungu to the north of Kongo. The royal titles, first elaborated by Afonso in 1512, styled the ruler as "King of Kongo and Lord of the Mbundus" and later titles listed a number of other counties over which he also ruled as "king". The Mbundu kingdoms included Ndongo (sometimes erroneously mentioned as "Angola"), Kisama and Matamba. All of these kingdoms were south of Kongo and much farther from the king's cultural influence than the northern kingdoms. Still later eastern kingdoms such as Kongo dia Nlaza were named in the ruler's titles as well.
The kingdom of Kongo was governed in concert by the Mwene Kongo and the royal council known as the ne mbanda-mbanda, roughly translating as "the top of the top". It was composed of twelve members divided into three groups. One group were bureaucrats, another who were electors and a last of matrons. Senior officials chose the Mwene Kongo or king who served for life following their choice. Electors varied over time, and there was probably never a completely fixed list; rather, senior officials who exercised power did so. Many kings tried to choose their successor, not always successfully. One of the central problems of Kongo history was the succession of power, and as a result, the country was disturbed by many rebellions and revolts.
These four, non-electing posts, were composed of the Mwene Lumbo (lord of the palace/major-domo), Mfila Ntu (most trusted councilor/prime minister), Mwene Vangu-Vangu (lord of deeds or actions/high judge particularly in adultery cases), and Mwene Bampa (treasurer). These four are all appointed by the king and have great influence on the day-to-day operations of the court.
Another four councilors worked to elect the king as well as man important posts. The electors are composed of the Mwene Vunda (lord of Vunda, a small territory north of the capital with mostly religious obligations who leads the electors,) the Mwene Mbata (lord of Mbata province directly east of the capital and run by the Nsaka Lau kanda which provides the king's great wife), Mwene Soyo (lord of Soyo province west of the capital and historically the wealthiest province due to it being the only port and having access to salt), and a fourth elector, likely the Mwene Mbamba (lord of Mbamba province south of the capital and captain-general of the armies). The Mwene Vunda was appointed by the king from the Nsaku ne Vunda kanda. The Mwene Mbata was nominally confirmed by the king from the Nsaku Lau kanda. The Mwene Soyo was appointed by the king from the Da Silva kanda. The Mwene Mbamba was appointed by the king from anywhere he desired, but was usually a close family relation. These four men elected the king, while the Mwene Vunda and Mwene Mbata played crucial roles in the coronation.
Lastly, the council contained four women with great influence on the council. They were led by the Mwene Nzimba Mpungu, a queen-mother, usually being the king's paternal aunt. The next most powerful woman was the Mwene Mbanda, the king's great wife, chosen from the Nsaku Lau kanda. The other two posts were given to the next most important women in the kingdom being widowed queens dowager or the matriarchs of former ruling kandas.
The universal currency in Kongo and just about all of Central Africa was the shell of Olivella nana, a sea snail, known locally as nzimbu. One hundred nzimbu could purchase a hen; 300 a garden hoe and 2000 a goat. Slaves, which were always a part of Kongo's economy but increased in trade after contact with Portugal were also bought in nzimbu. A female slave could be purchased (or sold) for 20,000 nzimbu and male slave for 30,000. Nzimbu shells were collected from the island of Luanda and kept as a royal monopoly. The smaller shells were filtered out so that only the large shells entered the marketplace as currency. The Kongo would not trade for gold or silver, but nzimbu shells, often put in pots in special increments, could buy anything. Kongo's "money pots" held increments of 40, 100, 250, 400, and 500. For especially large purchases, there were standardized units such as a funda (1,000 big shells), Lufuku (10,000 big shells) and a kofo (20,000 big shells).
The Kongo administration regarded their land as renda, revenue assignments. The Kongo government exacted a monetary head tax for each villager, which may well have been paid in kind as well, forming the basis for the kingdom's finances. The king granted titles and income, based on this head tax. Holders reported annually to the court of their superior for evaluation and renewal.
Provincial governors paid a portion of the tax returns from their provinces to the king. Dutch visitors to Kongo in the 1640s reported this income as twenty million nzimbu shells. In addition, the crown collected its own special taxes and levies, including tolls on the substantial trade that passed through the kingdom, especially the lucrative cloth trade between the great cloth-producing region of the "Seven Kingdoms of Kongo dia Nlaza," the eastern regions, called "Momboares" or "The Seven" in Kikongo, and the coast, especially the Portuguese colony of Luanda.
Crown revenues supported the church, paid by revenue assignments based on royal income. For example, Pedro II (1622–1624) detailed the finances of his royal chapel by specifying that revenues from various estates and provincial incomes would support it. Baptismal and burial fees also supported local churches.
When King Garcia II gave up the island of Luanda and its royal fisheries to the Portuguese in 1651, he switched the kingdom's currency to raffia cloth. The cloth was "napkin-sized" and called mpusu. In the 17th century, 100 mpusu could buy one slave implying a value greater than that of the nzimbu currency. Raffia cloth was also called Lubongo (singular : Lubongo, Libongo, plural : Mbongo).
The Kongo peoples are divided into many subgroups including the Yombe, Beembe, Sundi, and others but share a common language, Kikongo. These groups have many cultural similarities, including that they all produce a huge range of sculptural art. The most notable feature of this region's figurative style is the relative naturalism of the representation of both humans and animals. "The musculature of face and body is carefully rendered, and great attention is paid to items of personal adornment and scarification. Much of the region’s art was produced for social and political leaders such as the Kongo king."
The central Bantu groups which comprised most of the Kongo kingdom passed on status through matrilineal succession. Furthermore, women in the group of kingdoms that at various times were provinces in the Kongo kingdom could have important roles in rulership and war. For example, Queen Nzinga, or Njinga, who ruled parts of the kingdom in Ndongo and Matamba provinces in the 17th century, was an effective ruler and war leader. In fact, she became a thorn in the side of the Portuguese to the degree that their correspondence at times was mainly about how to foil her. Nevertheless, the only thing that ended her efforts against them was her death in 1663 at an advanced age.